Thyroid disease is at an all- time high, brought on by many factors including autoimmune processes, nutritional deficiencies and toxins. First, let’s take a look at the function of the thyroid and then we’ll discuss ways to keep it happy and healthy.u
The thyroid is a tiny organ with a big impact on the body and how you feel. It consists of 2 thin lobes connected by a narrow piece of tissue creating a butterfly shape that envelops the trachea. A healthy thyroid gland carries out many responsibilities including the following:
- Proper body temperature control
- Helping to balance glucose and mobilize fat
- Promotes normal development of the nervous system in the fetus and newborn
- Normal functioning of heart rate and blood pressure
- Supports healthy bones and muscle tissue
- Helps the GI system keep things moving and increase release of digestive juices
- Enhances fertility and normal lactation
- Keeps skin hydrated through balancing secretory action
Signs of an underactive thyroid include difficulty losing weight, fatigue, puffiness of the face, feeling cold, constipation, brain fog and thinning hair, to name a few. Low thyroid function is also associated with a greater incidence of cancers of the breast, stomach, pancreas and colon, as well as heart disease and infertility. Signs of hyper, or over-active, thyroid may include intolerance to heat, heart palpitations, anxiety, insomnia and weight loss.
Thyroxine, or T4, is the major hormone excreted by the gland. It’s also used as the main replacement therapy, in the form of synthroid and similar drugs. Triiodothyronine, or T3, is also released by the thyroid but in a lesser amount. This is the active form of the hormone that stimulates the metabolism. Most T4 is converted to T3 at the cellular level. There are times where the body has difficulty making the conversion from T4 to T3. These people typically don’t feel well with synthroid. The target tissues are found everywhere in the body except the adult brain, spleen, testes, uterus and the thyroid itself.
The thyroid receives a hormone called TSH from the anterior pituitary gland located in the brain (figure 1.). This signaling molecule tells the thyroid when to release more T4 and T3. Once sufficient levels are reached the pituitary glands senses the level of T4 in the blood and stops sending the signal (the TSH) to the thyroid.
The thyroid hormone itself is made up of tyrosine, an amino acid from protein and iodine. The thyroid also relies on other nutrients for proper function. These include:
- Vitamins B2, B3, B6 and B12
- Selenium (sources: fish, crab, kidneys, liver, brazil nuts)
- Vitamin A (liver, eggs, dairy)
- Zinc (seafood, meat and poultry)
Although Iodine has been added to salt to reduce the chance of deficiency leading to hypothyroidism, Iodine deficiency has actually increased over the past few decades. Seaweed and sea foods are rich sources of Iodine, and seem to be put to better use than the Iodide found in salt.
Remember that old periodic table from science class? Well, a few similar elements from the same class, bromide, chloride and fluoride, can all interfere with proper thyroid uptake of iodine and subsequent hormone production. Triclosan, found in antibacterial hand soaps, plastics and PCBs are also known to disrupt thyroid function.
Hashimoto’s is an autoimmune hypothyroid disease and Graves is an autoimmune hyperthyroid disease. In these cases the immune system produces antibodies against the thyroid hormone or tissue. It is thought that these illnesses are the results of chronic low grade infections or toxicity causing an ongoing irritation of the immune system, causing it to misbehave.
What’s a thyroid to do? Some basic things we can do to keep our thyroids healthy are, you guessed it, eat well and exercise. People who work outside and are exposed to variation in temperature, along with fresh air and sunshine are much less likely to experience thyroid issues. We’ve already looked at some of the nutritional factors that the thyroid requires for optimal health. Keeping the GI tract healthy supports better absorption of said nutrients. Keeping inflammation down is also important, and one of the factors that we know weakens the digestion and immune system is stress.
If you suspect you have a thyroid imbalance, even if you’ve been tested and have been told “everything is normal” don’t despair. The test used by many doctors to indicate thyroid function is notoriously inadequate. As Naturopathic doctors, we have diagnostic and therapeutic tools at our disposal to help decipher the root of the imbalance and help to restore vitality and vibrancy.